Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers looks set to reconfigure his trademark 4-3-3 system to include new signing Daniel Sturridge, meaning Luis Suárez’s days in the ‘false nine’ role may be at an end.
Given the England international’s record at centre-forward, Rodgers’ re-think seems sensible. In 2011, Sturridge scored eight goals in twelve appearances while on loan at Bolton, playing so well that on his return to Stamford Bridge many Chelsea fans demanded his inclusion over the misfiring Fernando Torres. That he was subsequently used almost exclusively as a wide forward by a succession of Blues managers is perhaps the most important reason for his failure at the London club.
Rodgers has stated that this tactical change is not a capricious move – rather, the plan has been months in the making. He has been meticulously preparing Suárez for his move away from the central position and believes that the Reds will become stronger for having a more orthodox forward in the side, while maintaining a multidimensional attacking threat.
“I have said that 4-3-3 will become richer because of the type of players,” he said, “There is not one way to play 4-3-3. You can play one up, a floating number nine like Luis Suárez and two wingers. You can play one like Daniel Sturridge central, two in and around him narrow, with full-backs bombing on.”
Barcelona’s is, of course, the system that Rodgers seeks to emulate. The Catalan giants’ flexible use of the 4-3-3 formation has routinely seen a forward like David Villa and Alexis Sánchez starting in a narrow position to the left of Lionel Messi, with the Argentine regularly moving deep or to the right in order to allow them to advance through the middle.
On the right, Barça usually play a more natural winger such as Pedro Rodríguez or Isaac Cuenca. In most games, the three attackers interchange with such fluidity that to say one is ‘playing centrally’ with another ‘wide’ is simply impossible. A similar sort of variation can be expected at Anfield.
The logic behind the new system is sound. Suárez and Sturridge can easily dovetail and switch roles during games. While the Englishman is admittedly nowhere near as cultured as his Uruguayan colleague, his movement is by no means bad. When required, he can drop deep or move wide and give Suárez space to exploit.
Equally, Suárez will continue to find space in channels while using Sturridge as a reference point. With his excellent ball control and menacing dribbling skill, the Liverpool number seven will invariably draw the attention of a number of defenders when receiving the ball, thereby allowing Sturridge to focus on springing the offside trap.
With the remaining forward role filled by a winger like Raheem Sterling or Stewart Downing, Rodgers’ side can vary their attacking approach while maximising the size of the playing area.
Secondarily, accommodating Sturridge will ease the burden on Suárez. For all his brilliance this season, the South American forward has undeniably taken on too much responsibility. Rodgers has repeatedly lamented the fact that his talisman often cuts a defence to ribbons before finding that he has no square option to aid him in finishing off the chance created.
The statistics say it all: while Suárez averages 6.2 shots per game, Steven Gerrard’s 2.6 is the next highest figure. Those to have regularly occupied the wide forward roles, Raheem Sterling, Fabio Borini and Suso, average fewer than two shots per game. Sturridge’s figure will doubtless be far higher.
Some have questioned the wisdom of moving Suárez while he is in such a rich vein of form. While only Robin Van Persie has scored more than his fifteen Premier League goals this season, Rodgers pointed out that Suarez’s performances as a second striker were what convinced Liverpool to sign him in the first place.
“When he played at Ajax he played in behind as a number ten in between the lines and he played as a reverse winger from the left side. He was not quite out wide, he was tucked in. Wherever he plays, he will make the same movements and he will find the space because he is a world-class player.”
While playing in the withdrawn role for the Amsterdam side, Suárez scored 111 goals in 159 games. Furthermore, the Ajax system paired him with arguably the most out-and-out number nine around, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. In 2007-08, the two players combined to score forty-nine Eredivisie goals. While the standard is not necessarily comparable, it is hard not to conclude that if Suárez can work with a finisher as unashamedly one-dimensional as Huntelaar, he can definitely produce the goods alongside Sturridge.
Given Brendan Rodgers’ expertise on the training ground, it looks a safe bet that he will quickly maximise the players’ understanding of their new roles and how they relate to each other. Sturridge will make his debut in Liverpool’s FA Cup third round tie against Mansfield Town on Sunday. While it would be silly to underestimate the Football League side, particularly as the game will be played at Field Mill, it is perhaps the ideal game in which to introduce the Reds’ new system.
All stats from WhoScored.com
Follow Rob Brown on Twitter: @robbro7